By now you undoubtedly know about the very sad death of iconoclastic Rolling Stone and Buzzfeed contributor Michael Hastings, who was killed early yesterday morning in a car crash in Los Angeles at the age of 33. Right off the bat it practically goes without saying that Hastings was a damn fine journalist: fearless and intrepid, with a take-no-prisoners-or-bullshit style and a booming voice that belied his reportedly humble and easy-going demeanor. While his seminal 2010 piece for Rolling Stone, "The Runaway General," essentially ended the career of General Stanley McChrystal, Hastings had actually been reporting not just on Iraq but from deep inside the country for years, as a young, brash field correspondent for Newsweek. It was early during the tail-end of his tour in Iraq that his idealistic, politically minded girlfriend at the time, Andi Parhamovich, was killed in a Sunni rebel ambush along with three of her bodyguards. That led Hastings to return to the U.S. and write a book called "I Lost My Love in Baghdad."
While the book suffered from many of the pitfalls first-time long-form writers experience, I remember being taken aback by Hastings's willingness to put his heart out there, however occasionally clumsily. It was strange to be reading that kind of thing from a war correspondent. I had just recently written a piece for my blog detailing my experiences with a woman who had whatever the gene is that leads certain men and women to actually want to go get shot at overseas for extended periods of time -- in her case it was a form of thrill-seeking coupled with, ironically, a fear of creating real attachments -- and here was a guy who turned my central thesis on its ass by being both single-mindedly dedicated and wonderfully nurturing. It helped me to appreciate Michael Hastings not just as a journalist but as a human being and in some ways bearing his personal anguish, I still believe, may be one of the most fearless things he ever did during his inarguably praise-worthy career.
That being said, while you're going to read many well-deserved paeans to Hastings today, if you want to lose faith in humanity in the age of the internet, just go ahead and Google "Government Killed Michael Hastings," then sit back and watch the madness flow forth. A fiery single-car crash involving a muckraking reporter who took on the military power structure, on a largely deserted street at four in the morning, seems tailor-made for America's growing contingent of conspiracy theorist fever dreamers and believe me they're not disappointing right now. There are people out there who believe that the government destroyed the World Trade Center, that the Boston Marathon bombing never happened, and even that Edward Snowden is actually a CIA plant; immediately jumping to the conclusion the government must've taken out Michael Hastings is only "logical" for anyone so thoroughly detached from reality.
Never mind that single-car crashes into trees, even ones that result in explosions, happen all the time here in L.A. -- especially when there's nobody on the notoriously neglected roads of this bankrupt city to stop you from picking up a little speed. Never mind that the only place high-profile journalists are killed by the government, despite the almost ravenous secret desires of the paranoid to have their delusions proven sound, is in Robert Ludlum-style books and movies. Never mind being willing to take something at face value rather than desperately, pathetically believing that nothing you see or hear is as it seems. Never mind any of that. All that matters to these lunatics is that there has to be a government conspiracy at the heart of this crash aimed at silencing a nosey reporter, because that's for some inane reason easier to process than the fact that a tragic accident can happen to anyone, even a guy like Michael Hastings. ("That's what they want you to believe, man!")
To those who think this way: For God's sake, honor the man by not turning his death into yet another occasion to hide the tiny cup of pills the nurse left on the nightstand for you under the bed instead of taking them. Hastings was a journalist who took on authority, regardless of what kind or where it ultimately led him, and did so with an uncommon ferocity and an uncompromising passion for the truth.
I may not have agreed with him on everything, particularly his willingness to align himself with the likes of Glenn Greenwald -- a "journalist" far beneath his stature -- on the recent NSA miasma. But I respected him nonetheless, precisely because I firmly believe that he, unlike those currently charged with reporting on Edward Snowden and the NSA/PRISM disclosures, would've brought a true journalist's eye and sense of ethics to the story, something it's desperately needed from the beginning. Hastings may have thought that the overall information Edward Snowden leaked to the world was important, but he never would've made the amateurish mistakes Greenwald did in the latter's rush to prove his own biases. Hastings would've made the thing airtight and the questions being asked right now about the holes in Snowden's story and Greenwald's reporting of it likely wouldn't even be happening.
Why? Because, as Rachel Maddow said so beautifully last night about Michael Hastings: "A lot of people in the news business want to seem unafraid. Michael Hastings was actually unafraid." He was unafraid. Unafraid of where the facts took him. Unafraid of what the truth revealed. Unafraid of putting his life on the line in the pursuit of that truth and of balancing both advocacy and objectivity. Hastings was, in short, a real journalist.